The Democratization of Marketing

By Dan Monroe

Marketing used to be monologue. To buy or not to buy. That was the question. Brands spoke to their audiences through media with which we are all familiar—television, radio, print, billboards, etc. But that’s all changed. With the advent of social media and electronically shared information, the theatre of marketing didn’t just break through the fourth wall; it demolished it entirely. Marketing isn’t monologue anymore. Most of the time, it isn’t even dialogue. It’s conversation. And not organized, civilized conversation, mind you, but the kind of cacophony that arises when thousands, or tens and hundreds of thousands of voices are all talking at once. The shift in the way people consume and share information has necessitated that brands give up what used to be total control of their message. Welcome to the information age, the era of social interaction at the speed of electrons. Welcome to the  world of democratic marketing.

In the old days, brands spoke with authority. And whenever what they claimed was called into question, there was enough true journalism left in the world to call out the brand  on what it was saying. But now, a brand’s authorized voice and any other voice are able to speak with the same intensity. All of us have a say. And it is both wonderful and terrible at the same time. You see, in an environment where every voice is equally loud, the line between true and false, between news and propaganda, blurs. A recent study by the Stanford Graduate School of Education suggests that college students have difficulty differentiating between what is true and what is not in the information they consume online. Faux news stories are affecting choices we make. We live in an age when a single disgruntled employee with a large following could bring your company to its knees.

Brands that don’t understand the power of the conversation will suffer lasting consequences. Consider what happened to United Airlines back in 2008 when they broke a $3,500 guitar belonging to David Carroll of the band Sons of Maxwell. While United did not deny responsibility, they didn’t compensate Carroll for the loss, despite communications over nine months. Finally frustrated with the whole situation, Carroll wrote a song documenting the experience and uploaded it to YouTube where it lives to this day (note: nothing online ever dies). It’s been viewed more than 14 million times. United eventually replaced the guitar, but the brand damage was done.

Likewise, if you are involved in the conversation, make sure you’ve thought through what you’re doing, unlike McDonald’s when they launched #McDStories in 2008. McDonald’s hoped to highlight farmer stories and bring great credit to their brand. Unfortunately for McDonald’s, you can’t control a hashtag, and, in this instance, #McDStories was hijacked by all sorts of voices with unsavory stories to tell about McD’s. That’s been almost nine years and the hashtag is still getting hit.

And speaking of hashtag woes, using a hashtag without understanding it can have equally disastrous results. Just ask DiGiorno Pizza, which sent a now infamous tweet with a hashtag used by victims of domestic violence to share the hard truths of why they stayed in abusive relationships. When DiGiorno tweeted, “#whyistayed: You had pizza” they found themselves lambasted, even though they had removed the offensive tweet quickly (did I mention that nothing online ever dies?). Their response was to reply individually to all of the thousands of Twitterers who had written angry, disappointed, or confused replies to their ill-conceived tweet. A quick check of the hashtag would have saved their crisis response team a lot of heartache and prevented the venerable pizza brand from catching a face full of pie.

So how can we manage this state of affairs as responsible ambassadors of our brands?

1. Understand and respect the tactics you choose to use. Unlike the one-way broadcasts of yore, today’s tactics can bite back.

2. Be vigilant—know what people are saying about your brand. There are some fairly robust tools available for “listening” to what’s being said about your company. Many of these tools are being used by advertising and PR firms as well as companies that mine data.

3. Be true and authentic to your brand. The best defense is simply being good. Be true to the spirit of your brand in all of your dealings.

4. If you’re going to be conversant, keep it professional, check your spelling, check your language, and check your attitude. Remember: everything you post represents your brand.

5. In for a penny, in for a pound. If you’re going to involve your brand in the conversation and be relevant, you must be agile and diligent in equal measures. Trending topics are here and gone and brands must act quickly to leverage them in ways that propel them into the public conversation.

6. As you increase the number of tactics you use make sure they are part of a bigger strategy that integrates your paid media (advertising), owned media (your company website and blog), and your earned media (social media and public relations). The most effective strategies today allow for diminishing control over their message.

7. Understand the role crisis communications should play in your social media strategy and overall communications strategy. The increase in the number of communication methods and the introduction of shared media (social media, online comments, etc.) increase the chance of unexpected events that require a response.

8. Draft a social media policy so your employees know what you expect from them in terms of how they communicate about your brand.

9. Treat your employees well; they are your best ambassadors. And some of them might have large followings online. Here’s a for instance: In July 2014, the BBC’s former political correspondent, Laura Kuenssberg, reflected her change of employment by changing her Twitter handle from @BBC¬_LauraK to @ITVLaura_K. She took in excess of 50,000 followers with her.

10. If you must let an employee go, make sure you have buttoned up the legalities on what can be said on behalf of your brand. Here, there is no substitute for good advice from an outsourced HR company or an attorney well-versed in the legalities of social media.